What America Did You Have?

Yesterday broke me, I have to admit. I got home and I wanted a fire and there was only one match left and the wood was wet and I wanted to crochet and I’ve lost my hook and I just felt like there was not a single thing I could easily pull together to make sense out of the day.

Yet, the fire still started with only one match.  And it burned as long as I needed it to.  I don’t know what to make of the hook situation, though.  And I was counting on it to keep me busy at the Southern Festival of Books.

I was thinking, as I always do when I wonder just what the fuck kind of country it is where a man can espouse the position that some people aren’t good enough for a family and other people have long, “rational” discussions about it–as if there should be some common ground we can find or point of understanding we can reach about wanting to codify into law such a ridiculous position.

I know I all the time talk about how I feel like there are two Americas.  Not John Edwards’s two Americas, but the America of Walt Whitman, which is grand and sad and silly and people are broken and lonely and beautiful and they ramble on, too long, and they are lost and found again; Whitman’s America is full of artists and freaks and outsiders and people who are at the heart of America and still considered un-American. And then there’s the America that would and tries to destroy the other America, as often as it can, as thoroughly as it can.

And we, at any minute, may be citizens of one America or the other.

That is my deepest belief about America, that we are two countries, together.

Yesterday, when I told a friend that I was feeling kind of defeated by politics, she said she was, too, and was coming to feel like the only way to really change this country is through the arts.

Stop fighting with and on the terms of the one America and fight on our own terms.

I find that idea very appealing. And I felt comforted by it.

I woke up, though, with the end of this poem running through my head.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage? Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

12 thoughts on “What America Did You Have?

  1. My husband has a philosophy about tape measures: buy a lot of them, don’t worry about putting them away after you use one. After a period of time, you will be able to find a tape measure nearby wherever on your property you happen to need one.

    Personally, I think the philosophy could be successfully applied to crochet hooks.

  2. I find it very appealing to believe that our salvation will come through art, and I don’t think it’s wholly wrong. Then again, I don’t think it’s wholly right either.

    I think that we slowly make progress, slowly fight back against the tide of hate and build the dams around what lands (culturally) we have won. The struggle comes from the depths of our passion for change, and it comes from people at the front lines both as figureheads and as foot soldiers. It comes from the books, it comes from painting, movies, music, arguing in the street. It comes from every thing that we do that makes the world a better place, and it comes from everything that we do that makes it worse.

    I’m far more radical than most people I know, even those who agree with me, but I’ve no illusions of a revolution sweeping the land bringing waves of change. Rather, I think that real change is a very slow, almost generational thing… and it takes a whole society wanting to become better to roll the stone up the hill.


  3. Yes, yes, yes.

    I’ve come to realize that after almost 2 decades of the whole “trying to change the system from within” kind of mindset and attempting to carve out a space with the corporate American system from which to do good that it’s not working. I wake up every morning and sell my soul all day in exchange for a comfortable existence and try and justify it by using my personal time to fight for what I believe in. I’m ready to trade it for a life on the fringe with less comfort but more substance and authenticity.

    There are two Americas, and I’ve been living in the wrong one and am ready to trade in my passport.

    p.s. I feel bad about steering you wrong on the new Rosanne Cash album – you’re totally right about the arrangements. I’ve been listening to it all week and while some songs totally stand out to me, it’s been driving me crazy trying to figure out why I don’t totally love every minute of it. I love the song choices, love the vocals, but there is definitely something not right about it.

  4. I mostly left ‘politics’ for this reason. It seems like a kettle of bland things that only froths over because the bland things react against one another. Like baking soda and vinegar.

  5. Ryan, no worries. It is a weird album in that way. I really don’t think Cash’s voice has ever been more suited for the material and the songs are perfect. I tried so hard to adore it, but I grimaced through almost all of it (though there are some extraordinary songs on there).

    I really do hope someone will remix it.

  6. If we give up politics, though, aren’t we just acquiescing in whatever gets done? That makes me uncomfortable.

  7. I’ve been feeling defeated too. But it’s easy to forget that changes have come, maybe so slowly that we didn’t see them at the time, but they have.

    Today I went out to do some shopping here in Houston. In a cosmetics store I found myself browsing next to two very flamboyant young gay men, having a blast trying on lipsticks. We chatted a little and I felt so good knowing that America has changed enough that these young men could put on makeup and bleach their hair and walk around in pink flowery pyjama bottoms and go on about their day being their own bad selves! I don’t think they could have done that even ten years ago. And then later in the day I drove past a languid young man dressed like a beatnik, but in flip flops, and carrying a huge red gerber daisy.

    There’s a lot that’s bad right now. But the little good things continue to multiply.

  8. If we give up politics, though, aren’t we just acquiescing in whatever gets done? That makes me uncomfortable.

    R. Neal said that about the only difference between a Republican and a Democrat on policy objectives is something like “death penalty by electric chair v. lethal injection, teaching the King James v. the New International version in schools, and 9mm v. .40 cal.”

    When the game is that narrow, there’s something to be said for refusing to continue to play the game on their terms. And if I, personally, cannot reach people through being a part of that nonsense, I think I would rather try to reach them some other way.

    That shouldn’t be confused with being apolitical. Far from it.

    I recently adopted Joe Strummer as an avatar. That’s not a coincidence.

  9. Amen, nm. We get what we settle for, and we don’t have the will to demand more. People need to take citizenship more seriously, and embrace it more. If you’re tired of politics or you hate government, then maybe you should move to a place where other people decide everything for you. Last I checked, this is still a representative republic. We have a responsibility to be involved in politics, because in the most basic sense we are the fucking government. If there’s a problem, it’s that we’ve abdicated our authority for comforting words and trinkets. We’re worse than the mythical Indians who sold Manhattan for a bag of beads.

    I got so annoyed listening to Obama wax on about “hope”, and I got pissed that so many people bought into it. Bullshit. Hope is for people who’ve tried everything else and have no remaining options. Anyway, I’m going to stop because I’m still a little annoyed about an Obama supporter who told me yesterday that I threw my vote away on Cynthia McKinney. I’d rather be in the minority that tried than the majority that lined up again to fuck themselves.

  10. That’s sort of my point about these ultraconservative dems. There’s already a party for that. They’re called republicans.

  11. Sam, I’ve always believed that Obama is using the word “hope” in the sense that Cornel West argued for in the 1990s — as a moral imperative that demands transformational struggle sustained by an audacious belief in the face of scant evidence that the human heart is an instrument tuned to good. This would be a philosophical concept in opposition to optimism — optimism, in West’s words, is the foolish idea that you can do the same damn thing over and over and something good will come of it. Hope, for West, demands progressive action; it’s a blind faith walk towards the better thing you want.

    Here’s a brief piece by Bro. West explaining what he means:


    I’m a big fan of hope in this sense, but I also can distinguish it from bullshit and business as usual. Sadly, there’s too much of the latter and not nearly enough of the former in Obama’s walk.

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